Portugal. The Man is “So American”

To further illustrate the everlasting impacts of historic events on popular culture is this Portugal. The Man Take Away Show recorded in Paris, France. Aside from the latent choice of performing a song titled “So American” in a foreign country (such an American thing to do), this is a legacy song that synthesizes decades of U.S. history. In deconstructing the song critically, we see specifically American tropes and challenges highlighted in under four minutes.

Jesus Christ enters the song first and points to the country’s foundation as a Christian escape from religious persecution; to this day, the country that emblazons its currency with “In God We Trust” while bestowing religious institutions with tax-exempt status struggles to separate Church and State. This is immediately followed by a shout-out to rock and roll, the instantly identifiable American genre and possibly one the greatest American contributions to music. Music, in and of itself, is no stranger to religion and is used heavily in church to reinforce the gospel. Gospel and Blues, when viewed as secular genres both rooted in slavery, beget Rock and Roll, and although Jesus didn’t know no rock and roll it’s interesting that this type of music has been exalted by many to religious status as a supplement for religions that had alienated them. Take, for example, Rockabilly teenagers who craft their entire existence around a movement that had its moment in the 1950s. That type of immersion takes a religious devotion, and offers the same sense of belonging as that of a worshipping community within traditional brick and mortar churches. This sense of community, I believe, is the essential lure of religion today.

Next up is the Vietnam War, the watermark of American shame. During this conflict, American G.I.s were sent into foreign jungles to quash a civil war so as to prevent the spread of communism into the American sphere of influence. Sound like the logic of a deranged lunatic? That’s because it was; it was the result of many men infected by Red Fever enacting the Domino Theory in which they had been politically raised and would dominate American politics throughout the Cold War. And what did those GIs bring with them to Vietnam? Rock and roll. The domestic impact of the Vietnam War, fueled by anti-war songs, occurred in tandem with the general unrest of the 1960s that included, among other events too numerous to list, the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of not one but two Kennedys.

In retrospect we must ask ourselves that which Portugal. The Man implores: is there madness in us all? Did we inherit this chaos as vegetables soak up chemicals from the soil? The entirety of the 1960s and 1970s seems anathema to American values, as does the institution of slavery (ironically, perpetuated by direct descendants of persecuted Christians) when viewed with the perspective afforded 21st-century citizens. We were raised to revere the American flag because it stood for liberty, equality and justice for all, but once we grew into our critical thinking skills we were left to wonder: who broke the rules, and where are we supposed to turn when the policemen don’t even understand?

So, you see, this Portugal. The Man song truly IS so American. It’s a conscious rebuttal to the past that ends with the nullifying “There’s two eyes for every one of us, but somebody got there first and took them all.” Americans are aware of their sins, but unable to atone for them because they cannot see through the haze of the past. This isn’t our fault, either, because the ability to see, our crucial sense of sight has literally been taken away from us by those who broke the rules, obfuscated the truth, and smiled while they did it.

No wonder we’ve all gone mad.

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The Black Angels Source

Every time I listen to The Black Angels I immediately think of that scene in Apocalypse Now where Willard stares at the ceiling fan and we instantly know it’s a metaphor for helicopter blades, because it always is when talking about Nam. I blame my Undergrad thesis for this.

I was majoring in History, emphasis in 20th-century American, when the new millenium began. While I don’t regret choosing this major, I eventually took issue with the way history is traditionally studied, which is restrictive as opposed to the way students within the Humanities analyze the cause and effect of the world as it’s been given. Hindsight is 20/20. Which brings me back to my thesis and it’s failure.

Well, not failure: I swung a B+, but until that point I had only ever aced papers. You see, I couldn’t restrain myself to mere historical interpretation; I had to explore the Vietnam War in relation to the cultural. This, I believe, is the only responsible way to weigh the scope of history. Studying the historical narrative using only dates and broadly defined movements is insufficient if you cannot view it through a cultural lens. For example, Jackson Pollock’s seemingly incoherent No. 5 or William S. Burroughs’ brazen Naked Lunch speak with more immediacy of a postwar generation attempting to redefine its worldview than consumer trending or presidential elections.  This is not to say the cultural is raised above the historical in importance, they are symbiotic; one cannot exist without the other.

With this in mind, my thesis attempted to explain the impact of the Vietnam War through an analysis of music made both during the conflict and in the years that followed as a way of explaining the lasting effects it had on not just one American generation but on MANY generations to come, generations that had no direct link to the event except to its fallout. Naturally, The Black Angels album Passover was the lynchpin of my argument. I even played the song Young Men Dead during my thesis presentation, which served two purposes: it illustrated my hypothesis in a stimulating way, and shortened the amount of time I had to speak in front of the class. I hate public speaking; I sweat and say inappropriate things when I’m nervous, and public speaking makes me very, very nervous. Although this paper was good, my arguments sound, it did not stay within the confines of traditional historiography: it was a Humanities paper. My professor did not consider Passover a source document, and I did; this is a valid difference of opinion.

If you read this blog regularly (fat chance) you’ll see that I continue to understand American history in the context of music because these are the two great loves of my life. Plus, it makes sense. History is the study of interacting civilizations, which, by definition, are groups of people who have attained a heightened level of cultural and technological development, and feel the need to document their accomplishments through the written word and the maintenance of records. Think of the Romans or Greece, think of the Japanese, think of England. To be civilized is to exude the characteristics of a state of civilization, mainly taste, refinement or restraint–all three of which are vital to the artistic process. Art is created when we fragile beings internalize our surroundings, digest their significance, and give them meaning by reformatting our conclusions in a physical way, manifesting as a movie, a song, a dress, a novel, a photograph, a sculpture, an oil painting, and so on. Since history is an amalgamation of decisions made by people, it’s logical to study it from personal perspectives.

Art, by its very nature, is more emotive than battle plans or congressional hearings. Art exists because we synthesize our surroundings and our surroundings synthesize us; it grabs us, it wants us, it needs us. We emotionally invest in the things to which we can relate, and we relate to things we think pertain to us because vanity is a very real thing. Pertinence happens when something is multilayered and offers the simplistic along with the profound; this is the key to engaging people in the study of history. Using a song by a contemporary band like The Black Angels, who you can see at The Fillmore tonight (5/17/2013), was a way to unconsciously draw my audience into the connectivity of history. Some may have walked away from my presentation liking the music, and may have downloaded it later that night. Hopefully I had planted a seed that perhaps, for a few, precipitated an investigation into the legacy of the music–how it related to the present because it was rooted to the past. It was a devious way of immersing them in the ongoing historical narrative.

Passover could have been released in 1969 just as easily as it was in 2006, the War in Iraq draws certain comparisons with the War in Vietnam, and what does that say about the continuity of history and the relevance of art? Go to The Fillmore tonight and find out for yourselves.

For more commentary on this topic, read these older posts: The Black Angels, Young Men Dead and Not So Tame Impala.